The Age

By Tom Switzer

We were right to invade; we're wrong to stay in the 'graveyard of empires'.

WHILE the past week's coverage of the enhanced military co-operation between Canberra and Washington may suggest otherwise, the most urgent item on Australia's foreign policy agenda is how to extricate ourselves from the depressing and endless war in Afghanistan. The conflict has dragged on for 10 years and never have so many people on both sides of the Pacific been questioning its value.

According to an Essential Research poll this week, support for Australia's withdrawal from Afghanistan has increased from 47 per cent to 64 per cent in the past year. And according to a CNN/ORC International poll last month, a record high 63 per cent of Americans now say the war is no longer worth fighting.

And yet in his 3,000-plus-word address to Parliament last week, President Barack Obama dedicated only one paragraph to the conflict. (Prime Minister Gillard skipped the subject altogether.) One is left with the impression that our political leaders increasingly find it harder to justify a war that involves more blood and treasure and no promise of a happy ending.

Make no mistake: we were right to invade Afghanistan in October 2001 in order to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his cohorts as well as topple the black-turbaned tyrants who gave al-Qaeda shelter and support.

But as the then foreign minister, Alexander Downer, has recognised, that mission has mainly been accomplished. Other issues - the routing of the Taliban and the building of a viable democratic state - are simply beyond our reach.

Almost all trends are moving in the wrong direction: the corruption-plagued Afghan government remains a basket case, our ally Pakistan can't be trusted, the occupation is costing the Americans $10 billion a month, and Australian deaths have nearly trebled in the past 18 months.

American hegemony should not be confused with American omnipotence. If the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has taught us anything, it is to recognise that when it comes to defeating tribal warlords in alien societies, the US finds itself wrong-footed and outwitted, not so much an eagle as an elephant.

No wonder Obama wants to withdraw as much as a third of the US occupation presence before next November's presidential election. In fact, in mid-2012, before the fighting season concludes, he will pull about 35,000 troops out of Afghanistan.

To what extent will such a rapid withdrawal expose our Diggers to even greater risk? Gillard has failed to answer this.

No one should doubt the skill and bravery of our armed forces in Afghanistan. But our war aims are incoherent, our exit strategy is never explained, and our presence is exacerbating the problems we went in to solve, serving to destabilise Pakistan rather than to stabilise Afghanistan.

No one wants Afghanistan to once again become a Club Med for terrorists. But as distinguished US conservative columnist George Will asks: "If US forces are there to prevent re-establishment of al-Qaeda bases - evidently there are none now - must there be nation-building invasions of Somalia, Yemen and other sovereignty vacuums?"

Moreover, the Afghan Taliban do not yearn for global martyrdom; they merely want to restore Pashtun rule in Afghanistan. That may not be ideal for the people of that war-torn country, but it hardly represents a threat to vital Australian interests.

Would Canberra precipitate a crisis in US-Australia relations by withdrawing our 1550 troops from the war? Hardly. Most NATO leaders have rejected Obama's appeals for extra troops in the south, where most of the fighting is occurring, and other allies - Canada, the Dutch - have pulled out.

History also shows that the alliance can survive. Robert Menzies and Dwight Eisenhower bitterly clashed over the Suez crisis in 1956. Gough Whitlam's ministers Jim Cairns and Tom Uren called Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger "maniacs" and "murderers" for the Christmas bombing in 1972. Bob Hawke's left-wing Labor comrades rejected Ronald Reagan's MX missiles in 1985. None of these episodes damaged ANZUS.

The US alliance should remain the centrepiece of Australian foreign policy, under a Labor or Coalition government. But one can agree with that assessment and still believe there is no silver lining to this war.

We should leave Afghanistan to the drones and the US elite and specialised forces, search for a negotiated political settlement and withdraw our troops from what is known as the "graveyard of empires." That is what most Australians want. But political pressure needs to grow stronger if withdrawal will be achieved any time soon.

Tom Switzer is editor of Spectator Australia and a research associate at the United States Studies Centre, Sydney University.